Coaching the Adolescent Brain

Parents, coaches and teachers have always known that enticing an adolescent to listen and follow directions is a challenge. Teen mood swings and erratic behavior have often been attributed to hormonal changes. While hormones do play a part in teen mood and behavior new research has highlighted the developing teen brain as a factor in explaining the often-baffling teenager.

While the brain is 90 to 95 percent of its adult size at age 6, it does not finish completely developing until around age twenty-five. The brain changes dramatically during the teen years, with the most change happening in the frontal lobes. This part of the brain is responsible for such “executive” functions as self-control, judgment, organizing thoughts, setting priorities, weighing the consequences of ones actions and modulating mood. The frontal lobes are responsible for controlling behavior, as well as helping to inhibit inappropriate responses and dangerous risk taking. Anyone familiar at all with teens recognizes that these abilities are erratic in many teens. “This is a crucial stage of development,” says Mel Levine, director of the University of North Carolina’s Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning, “because the frontal lobes enable a person to know where they’re heading as opposed to having no idea of what the consequences will be.”

In calm situations, teenagers can rationalize almost as well as adults, but under stress, the frontal lobes cannot cope and the teen can make bad or inappropriate decisions. What does this information have to do with coaching and the development of young tennis players? Coaching young athletes is a collaboration that can help them make up for what their brain still lacks by providing structure, organizing their time, and guiding them through decisions and goal setting. Coaches, teachers and parents can use their understanding of what is going on in the teen brain to help young players develop their full potential.

Participation in sports allows young people to exercise their brains in a way that helps them to learn to order their thoughts, understand abstract concepts, control impulses and think through the consequences of their actions. Practicing these skills through sports is helping to lay the neural foundations that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

The following are Six Smart Tips for Coaching the Adolescent Brain:

  1. Coach/Parent as Collaborator

    Collaboration through the process of goal setting helps the young athlete understand the components of an overall training process. As the athlete expresses his/her ideas in the goal setting process it helps them to learn to make decisions and think through consequences. Many teen athletes are aware of but often do not commit to long and short term goals. As the adult listens and brainstorms with the athlete, they can help them construct and format the short and long-term goals. Scheduling short (10-15 minute) bi-monthly check-ins to discuss whether the goals are being met allows the teen athlete independence and support. Check-ins serve as positive meetings to assess with the athlete whether the goals are on track or need to be re-evaluated.

  2. Encourage Positive Risk Taking

    The teen brain “craves” risk at this stage. Experts contend that higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine make teens hungry for stimulation. Skills that are regularly exercised and positive become part of the brains long-term memory. One way coaches can engage teen athletes is to set up practices that emphasize learning through the “Games Approach Way.” Games Approach learning focuses on technical, tactical and strategic skills through game-like practice activities that create realistic learning opportunities. An example of this could be to present a drill where the emphasis is on one player creating a tactical opportunity by attacking their opponents floating defensive shots then quickly moving forward to hit a mid-court swinging volley, followed up by continuing to the net and finishing off the point.

  3. Teach Stress Management Skills

    The teen years are a perfect time to introduce stress management skills. Many young athletes become emotionally over or under aroused before a match and this imbalanced state can cause poor performance. Two basic skills to aid the young athlete include proper breathing and positive self-talk. Proper breathing not only relaxes the body but also helps the player remain focused in the present moment. Controlled breathing enhances performance by oxygenating the blood and energizing the brain, nerves and muscles.

    Positive self-talk is the inner dialogue athletes have with themselves. Awareness training of inner dialogue and reframing negative thoughts into positive self-statements and action teaches the athlete to remain in control of their thinking and behavior. What a player thinks often determines how they feel and what they focus on and this influences overall performance.

  4. Guide Players Towards Healthy Brain and Body Habits

    Healthy brain and body habits include nutrition, hydration, sleep and the avoidance of drugs and alcohol.

    Nutritional knowledge includes awareness of the six basic nutrients and their roles in the body. Suggest the best foods to eat before, during and following competition to optimize fueling and refueling muscles. There are an abundance of nutritional books and articles available with this information.

    Educate young athletes regarding the importance of staying well hydrated and the warning signs of dehydration. Dehydration affects brain and body functions. Help the athlete establish a plan for getting enough sleep. Quality sleep is important for athletic clarity, learning and memory. Research studies suggest that melatonin, an important brain chemical, that helps with sleep can wreak havoc for adolescents because it is secreted late at night and can cause teens to stay awake longer therefore miss out on the sleep they need. Sleep specialist Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, says that teens average seven and a half hours of sleep a night. She maintains that for brain development, nine hours should be the goal.

    As any coach responsibly knows, discouraging drinking and drug taking. Research shows that because the adolescent brain is still developing it is vulnerable to the damaging effects of drugs and alcohol.

  5. Avoid Overloading the Athlete With Information

    A common coaching error is to overload the athlete with additional technical or strategic information before a match. The optimal role for a coach is to prepare the athlete beforehand, so when it is time to perform the athlete is in control and equipped with technical and strategic choices. Give the player the confidence to make decisions. Remember they are learning and are going to make mistakes. An element of the learning process of the brain is to read situations, learn when and how to improvise and develop flexibility when different situations arise.

    In many sports, coaches are an active presence throughout the event. Some junior tennis tournaments are experimenting with coaching during change- overs. Potentially this can be a helpful addition to a players learning as long as the coach remains in the “keep it simple” category of information. Adolescents perform less efficiently when they are overloaded with last minute instructions.

  6. Provide a Positive Structured Environment

    Having fun while learning athletic skills or practicing is a key motivating stimulus for teens. High positive energy arises from tuning into the challenge of the task and the joy of participation. Invite players to contribute relevant ideas/games that can be integrated into the practice.

    It is also useful to make up for what the teen brain still lacks by providing structure. Organizing team practices, establishing group rules/boundaries and enacting reasonable consequences when those rules are breached provides a positive environment.

    Embarrassing a teen or putting him/her on the spot frequently leads to resentment and hostility. Preaching or moralizing shuts down communication. It is healthy for teens to push for autonomy and equally healthy for the coach to maintain a standard of rules to promote the individual and group process.


As every coach and parent knows each teen is unique and develops in his/her own time. Most coaches are aware of the important role and influence they have in the physical skills process of the developing athlete. It is also important to keep in mind  that the quality of a teens experience actually influences how their brains become hard-wired over time. Scientific data will continue to clarify the mental and physical growth process of these adolescents and how coaches can best help in their development.

While there are more than Six Smart Tips to keep in mind while coaching the adolescent, this article has presented some fundamental tips.

  1. Coach/Parent As Collaborator.
  2. Encourage Positive Risk Taking
  3. Teach Stress Management Skills
  4. Guide Player Towards Healthy Brain and Body Habits.
  5. Avoid Overloading The Athlete With Information
  6. Provide A Positive StructuredEnvironment.


The Teenage Brain. Judy Hsu., April 14, 2004.

The Teen Brain. Tim Wendel. USA Weekend Magazine. May 18, 2003.

The Teen Brain Hard At Work. Leslie Sabbagh. Scientific American Mind. August/September, 2006.

Inside the Teenage Brain:Adolscent Brains Are Works In Progress. Produced by Sarah Spinks. Frontline: Nature, volume 404, March 9, 2000.

What Makes Teens Tick? Claudia Wallis. Time Magazine, May 10, 2004.